Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

28 Jan 2007

FO in the NY Times: Between AFC and NFC, Parity is Only a Six-Letter Word

My latest Keeping Score column from the New York Times, about the AFC dominance over the NFC. You'll be surprised to see that the AFC has actually been the better conference pretty much all along (well, since 1972). Even when the NFC won all those Super Bowls, it didn't necessarily dominate interconference play. (Free registration required.)

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 28 Jan 2007

40 comments, Last at 30 Jan 2007, 11:15am by Andrew


by Mac (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 4:23pm

That does surprise me; afterall, the game is the same in both conferences. In baseball, one league has a DH, the other doesn't, so there's a definite divide between the game in the two leagues.

by Peter Libero (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 5:37pm

I guess this is longer-term than basketball, but all sports' divides pale in comparison to the Eastern and Western conference.

Do we have any theories as to what this really is about? I would suggest the only thing that's really continuous over that long a period: ownership. The AFC franchises must have had better front offices over the last few decades, even if a few teams in the NFC (mostly the Cowboys, 49ers, and Redskins) have a history of dominance.

I guess to some extent you might have a reputation issue... like if you get equal contract offers from, say, the Saints and the Broncos, you pick the Broncos.

by PMD (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 5:38pm

Re: Denver's upset over Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII.

According to DVOA, Denver was actually the slightly better team (27.6% to 26.0%). If only there was a FO back then, those inclined to do so could have made a tidy little profit that day. The Pack entered as an 11.5 point favorite (source: Wikipedia).

by Crushinator (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 5:44pm

Contrast that with the N.F.C., where only two coaches were with the same team for more than five seasons: Andy Reid of Philadelphia and Mike Holmgren of Seattle, eight seasons each.

Also worth noting - Seattle was an AFC team for a few of those years.

by NF (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 5:57pm

Does this imply that the probability of the Bears winning the Super Bowl is being underestimated? If the AFC was superior to the NFC even during the times that the NFC was winning all those Super Bowls, then which conference is superior is not a good indicator of which team will win the Super Bowl.

by Treize (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 6:00pm

On average, the 16 A.F.C. coaches last season were with their teams two years longer than their N.F.C. counterparts.

I think this is the "It's teams that win that run often, not teams that run often that win" problem AKA confusing cause and effect. It seems to me continuity is an effect of success, not its cause. If you have a successful coach or a successful GM, you stick with him for as long as you can. Hence the long tenure of good coaches, with the noted exception of Bill Parcells, and good GMs, with the noted exception of Matt Millen. Sorry, Lions fans.

by VarlosZ (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 6:06pm

So, what's the overall interconference record since the merger?

by Dan R. (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 6:53pm

I wonder if anyone's written an article on the dominance of the AL, AFC, and Western Conference. They're all the newer, most westerly halves, aren't they?

by Sean (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 7:09pm

It doesn't surprise me at all. It always used to get my goat that the AFC was ridiculed as much as it was during the streak, as the conference always seemed to be the stronger conference from top to bottom. That said, the NFC featured multiple dynastic teams- the 49ers won five Super Bowls, the Cowboys won three, the Redskins won three-as well as the most dominant single-season team of all time in the 1985 Bears. The AFC playoffs were generally a lot more competitive, but the Super Bowl rarely was. Then when the AFC finally created a dynastic team of its own in Buffalo, they ended up spitting the bit in the Super Bowl. It's not like the Bills had a tough time with the NFC during the regular season; they racked up a 14-2 record against the NFC during their Super Bowl years, and both of those losses were on the final week of the season after they had already wrapped up homefield. They went 7-1 against the NFC East in the regular season and 0-4 in the postseason. I'd love to see the DVOA ratings from those years, just to get a gauge on how good those Buffalo teams really were.

by Yaguar (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 7:09pm

I wrote this somewhere else, too. The NFC's supposedly dominant run was basically just four teams: the Cowboys, Niners, Redskins, and Giants. Admittedly, those four teams were spectacularly good. But nobody remembers how crappy the in the AFC ever sucked quite as much as the Cardinals did. Besides the four teams that racked up Super Bowls, the NFC was pretty lame.

Take 1990 for instance. The NFC had 14 teams. Seven of them were 6-10 or worse. That's pretty astonishing. Of course, the 13-3 Giants and the 14-2 Niners were both good enough to stack up against the AFC's best (the Bills) but the median team in the NFC was terrible.

by Yaguar (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 7:10pm

Gah, weird sentence in the above post. Don't ask me what I was typing, I have a headache. The important thing is that the Cardinals were really, really, really bad, enough so that they make up for the dominant 49ers just by themselves.

by ammek (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 7:12pm

You talk about good front offices and coaching in the AFC, but it might be worth mentioning the other side of the coin - the existence of continually horrible franchises in the NFC. The Cards, Bucs, Lions, Saints and Falcons all have post-merger records which are inferior to almost anyone in the AFC. That's one-third of the conference which has sucked forever! Ownership has played a big part in that: think Bidwell, Benson, Ford, Culverhouse.

In the 70s a number of the venerable NFC franchises were run by gentleman octogenarians, and weren't always at the cutting edge. The disparity between the contenders and the patsies in the 80s seems to have been related to market size: the Giants, Skins, Bears and Niners prospered, while the small-market teams struggled. Tinkering with the revenue-sharing model in the 90s has, I'd argue, together with free agency, produced a more level playing field.

I also believe the long period of Superbowl success in the 1980s had a counterproductive effect on NFC coaching. In the mid-to-late 90s, more than half of the NFC teams had a coach from the so-called "49ers tree", and west coast offenses sprang up all over as front offices (often in major markets) sought a way to combine entertaining offensive-minded football with winning. The logical conclusion of this raiding of the West Coast cupboard was Marty Mornhinweg.

by Spoilt Victorian Child (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 7:57pm

Cities whose teams are all in the NFC, NL, and Eastern Conference: Atlanta, Philly, DC. And Milwaukee, sort of.

At least we've got the NFC East.

by M113 (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 8:08pm

Alot of this is that most people don't care about "top to bottom", just top. And that's fine--it's not such an interesting debate over who was better, the '88 Chiefs or the '88 Lions.

by Tom Kelso (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 8:15pm

Those owners should be Bidwill, Culverhouse, Ford, and Mecom.

The Saints' record under Benson's ownership has been far superior than under their original owner, John Mecom. It's similar to the Falcons' improvement under Arthur Blank, as opposed to Rankin Smith.

And my apologies to our Atlanta FO'ers -- I know that name is considered a curse to many of you.

by andrew (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 9:23pm

re: NBA / NFL

The Mavs are like the Chargers
The Suns are like the Colts
The Spurs are like the Patriots

by RecoveringPackerFan (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 10:59pm


And the Knicks are the Cardinals

by Fat Tony (not verified) :: Sun, 01/28/2007 - 11:21pm

Nah, the Knicks are more like the Titans with no Vince Young on the horizon.

by Mr. Beefy (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 12:22am

NFL Cardinals = NBA Clippers

by ChrisFromNJ (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 1:49am


Yeah, I suspect that most of it is simply because of the ne'er-do-well parade of NFC bottom-feeders led by the Cardinals and Lions, both of whom have had the same awful ownership forever. It's not like old-guard octogenarian NFL ownership was in and of itself a bad thing for the teams. Case in point- Pittsburgh, which has been one of the most successful AFC franchises since 1970 (and in a small market, too boot!) was run by the old-NFL Rooneys.

I wonder what the comparison would look like if you just took out the Cardinals and the Lions. Obviously, the AFC still would have a definite edge right now, but it might even things out a bit over history.

by Joshua (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 1:58am

This is just more of the FO East Coast bias!

What, you say, the AFC has more western teams?

by Doug (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 9:41am

There is another statistic that may correlate to conference dominance a bit better than inter-conference play.

Several people have mentioned that the NFC dominance in the 80's could be attributed to a few teams like the Niners, Cowboys, etc. However, you when you look at the # of teams from each conference with 10+ wins during those years, here's how it pans out:

Starting in 1984 (beginning of 13-0 run for NFC):

1984: NFC 4, AFC 4
1985: NFC 6, AFC 5
1986: NFC 5, AFC 7 (tie in ICP)
1987-1991: NFC 31, AFC 15 (NFC led each year)
1992: NFC 5, AFC 6
1993: NFC 4, AFC 4
1994: NFC 3, AFC 5
1995: NFC 5, AFC 3
1996: NFC 5, AFC 4

1996 was the year that the AFC retook inter-conference play dominance and they haven't given it back since.

Since 1997 the NFC has only led in 10+ win teams ONCE, in 2002, when they won the Super Bowl even though they lost the inter-conference play for the season.

So anyway, there are a few different measures of conference dominance other than inter-conference play dominance to look at.

by Doug (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 10:00am

I guess I should probably lay 1987-1991 for ya'll.

1987: NFC 4, AFC 2
1988: NFC 7, AFC 4
1989: NFC 7, AFC 1
1990: NFC 5, AFC 4
1991: NFC 8, AFC 4

That 1991 year was the only time in NFL history that 8 teams from a conference won 10 or more games.

The 1989 7-1 season was the largest margin between conferences (6).

So yeah, there weren't just three or four teams that were dominant in the NFC.

by Pat (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 11:03am

#22: Well, teams play 12 games in-conference, so 10+ win seasons might not be the best barometer. The NFC could have more 10-win teams, and still lose every game played to the AFC.

Then again, interconference play isn't the greatest, either: you've only got 60-some odd games, so an inept franchise knocks you down around 5% each time.

That kindof implies the entire AFC-NFC disparity could be explained by the NFC having one or two more inept franchises at any given time than the AFC - that'd center the graph around 0.500.

In other words: I blame the Cardinals.

by Ilanin (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 11:46am

I think what we're saying here is that the NFC has a larger variance and a slightly lower mean.

We're also saying that the Cardinals and the Lions suck. These are interconnected. It is significantly easier to have more 10+ win teams when the basement team in your division is giving you two easy wins every year.

Aaron, is interconference VOA (we want to know which conference is better, so adjusting for opponents is not smart) realistically plausible to calculate without having to rewrite the database and b) meaningful?

by Smeghead (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 11:55am

Ah, the grey lady. Periods between those initials keep anarchy at bay!

Shall I call you Mr. Schatz?

by Andrew (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 12:22pm

Doug #23 and Pat #24:

Do you guys remember this line though?

"It'll take the NFL 20 years to catch up. They panicked. They were so shaken up they forgot their game plan. We're the greatest team ever, better than the champion Colts of 1958 and '59 that I played on." (Johnny Sample, NY Jets, in the locker room after Super Bowl III).

A true prophesy by any measure. Other than the high-tech Cowboys, until the 49ers came around, the AFL (admittedly augmented with the Steelers) pretty much did whatever it wanted.

It does help that the AFL has never quite had a bunch of doormats like the Cardinals, Lions, Saints, Bucs, and Falcons. Even some of the long-time "good" NFL teams have really been long-time doormats in many ways too - like the Giants with their just 9 good seasons since the 1970's - mostly under Parcells, the Packers between Lombardi and Favre, the Bears outside the Ditka years.

On the other hand, maybe this is all just about small numbers. When you look at the number of teams and the number of total Super Bowls they've been to from each conference for teams with at least 3 appearances (i.e. at least 1 more than pure random luck would suggest in 41 years), the results are remarkably balanced - both conferences have been dominated by 7 teams each.

NFC (7 teams, 32 appearances): Cowboys - 8, 49ers - 5, Redskins - 5, Packers - 4, Vikings - 4, Rams - 3, Giants -3

AFC (7 teams, 33 appearances): Broncos - 6, Steelers - 5, Patriots - 5, Raiders - 5, Dolphins - 5, Bills - 4, Colts - 3

If you extend that two at least 2 Super Bowl appearances, you add in the Bears, Eagles, Chiefs, and Bengals - two teams from eahc conference - so 9 teams and 36 (NFC) and 37 (AFC) appearances.

When you look at who is left, the real difference is that among the remaining also-rans in the AFC are the Chargers, Browns, Jets, and Oilers/Titans, all relatively successful teams in the regular season (at least as good as the Giants and Bears, but with no or just 1 Super Bowl appearance) - only the Seahawks were truly bad with just 2 seaons with 10 wins since 1967 before they changed conferences. In the NFC, you cannot say that about any of the teams remaining - Atlanta has just 4 season with 10 or more wins since 1967, the Bucs 6, the Lions 4, the Saints 6, the Cardinals 3.

5 really bad teams beats 1 really bad team.

by ammek (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 12:22pm

25: "I think what we’re saying here is that the NFC has a larger variance and a slightly lower mean."


Today it's different. The AFC has a larger disparity between a number of excellent teams and some dire ones (hello, Houston!), whereas the NFC just has a lot of mediocrity and Matt Millen. However, to go back to Aaron's point about QBs and front offices, the AFC has produced a consistently good elite these last few years, in the way the NFC did in the 80s, backed by a decent set of second-tier teams, and a few long-term cellar-dwellers. (Long-term in modern NFL terms means 3-5 years.)

A case in point: none of 2005's fourth-placed teams in the NFC were fourth-placed in 2006. In the AFC, three out of four remain anchored to the bottom.

Another (longer-term): here's a list of teams that haven't won a postseason game since 2000:

Last win
1990 - Bengals (a)
1991 - Lions (n)
1994 - Chargers (a)
1995 - Bills (a)
1996 - Cowboys (n)
1997 - Chiefs (a)
1998 - Cardinals (n)
1999 - Jags (a)
none (1999) - Browns (a)
2000 - Dolphins (a)
2000 - Giants (n)

Seven AFC teams in that list - plus the Texans, that's half the conference. By comparison, there are just four NFC teams here, or one-quarter of the conference. That's an important difference!

by ammek (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 12:27pm

Andrew (26): The Colts' first appearance was as champion of the pre-merger NFL.

by Pat (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 12:51pm

The AFC has a larger disparity between a number of excellent teams and some dire ones (hello, Houston!)

The AFC doesn't have any team even remotely comparable to the Arizona Cardinals. Houston's close, but they're also an expansion team - 5 years of mediocrity doesn't beat 20 years of mediocrity.

the AFC has produced a consistently good elite these last few years

That's the big difference in recent years, in my mind. 40 wins over 4 years? In the AFC, that's IND/NE/PIT/DEN. In the NFC? It's PHI/SEA. 50 wins over 5 years? All 4 in the AFC, still. In the NFC? Philadelphia. That's it.

It's amazing how many perennial contenders fell apart in the NFC - San Francisco, Green Bay - and how many would-be "new powers" never materialized: Carolina, St. Louis.

by B (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 1:01pm

Actually, the Knicks are like the Redskins. A once-great franchise destroyed by incompetent management and terrible free-agency signings.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 3:10pm

Pat #30:

The AFC doesn’t have any team even remotely comparable to the Arizona Cardinals.

Well, the AFC had the Seahawks, but look what conference they are in now. And the NFC has multiple doormats. Of the other worst of the recent AFC - Bengals and Browns, the Browns look better if you extend the horizon back from 1976 (when the Bucs and Seahawks came into the league) to 1966. And of course, the Bengals also made two Super Bowls.

Cardinals - 252 wins since 1966, 184 wins since 1976.
Bucs - 187 wins since 1976.
Lions - 259 wins since 1966, 192 wins since 1976.
Falcons - 252 wins since 1966, 206 wins since 1976.
Bengals - 261 wins since 1968, 206 wins since 1976.
Browns - 272 wins since 1966 exlcuding 1996-1999, 194 wins since 1976 excluding 1996-1999
Saints - 247 wins since 1967, 215 wins since 1976.
Seahawks - 238 wins since 1976.

by ammek (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 3:52pm

Two sub-factors:

1 - AFC teams have successfully raided the NFC for coaching talent, but the reverse has not applied.

Recent NFC HCs “poached� by AFC: Dungy, Vermeil, Holmgren.

Recent AFC HCs poached by NFC: Gruden, Parcells, Ross.

Former NFC co-ordinators hired as HCs in AFC: Belichick, Billick, Del Rio, Edwards. (And now Tomlin.)

Former AFC co-ordinators hired as HCs in NFC: Gainey, Jauron, Sherman, Linehan, Nolan. (And now Whisenhunt.)

Given that the NFC has hired substantially more head coaches during these years, it’s safe to say they’ve had the poor end of the bargain. NFC teams have often preferred to hire from within the conference, taking Mora, Mornhinweg, Tice, McCarthy, Green, etc.

2 - AFC teams have drafted more and better QBs on the first day. A list since 2001 off the top of my head in (highly subjective) descending order of brilliance:

AFC - Palmer, Roethlisberger, Pennington, Rivers, Leftwich, Carr, Losman, Boller, Frye, Walter.
NFC - Smith, Vick, Manning, Grossman, Harrington.

Of course, this list excludes a couple of other useful QBs in the AFC whose names inspire irrational behaviour.

It’s useless to judge the more recent QBs drafted, but one thing’s for sure - the NFC is starting to catch up in terms of quantity.

AFC - Young, Cutler, Coyle, Clemens
NFC - Leinart, Romo, Campbell, Rodgers, Jackson, Simms.

by Pat (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 4:00pm

#32: Yeah, but all the teams you've listed besides the Cardinals have shown potential. Detroit had Barry Sanders, and bounced between 10+ wins and losing seasons. The Bengals and Bucs bounced out of their 15-year downcycle. Atlanta's schizophrenic, bouncing between 14 wins and 4 wins. Cleveland's been up and down as well (late 80s), as have the Seahawks (mid 80s, now) and Saints (late 80s, early 90s, early 2000s).

The Cardinals have had one winning season since 1984, and three since 1976. The only time the Cardinals show potential is in the offseason.

Like I said - no franchise really compares with the Cardinals. The Bucs only have 3 wins more than the Cardinals from 1976-now, but they have 8 winning seasons. The Cardinals have 3. And the Bucs and Lions (at 8) are the closest competitors.

Think about that. 3 winning seasons. In thirty years. That's an average of a winning season every decade. Some teams complain if they haven't won their division in 10 years. And the Cardinals' winning seasons are of the "9-7" type.

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 4:04pm

The AFC record in the '70s was helped immensely by the Steelers going from perennial losers to perennial monsters just as the realignment took place. Factor this, along with Shula turning the Dolphins into monsters, and the Colts winning a Super Bowl in 1970, along with having some other good years, and I always thought it was amusing that old AFL fans would brag how the the AFC record in the '70s demonstrated that the old AFL was clearly superior by the time the merger took place. Until the Raiders beat the Eagles for the 1980 trophy, I'd say the only clearly superior AFC Super Bowl champs who had a clear old-AFL lineage were '69 Chiefs and the '76 Raiders. I do think that if the '68 Colts had played the '68 Jets seven times, the Colts likely would have won four or five times. but I also think that the Jets victory was an immense benefit to football fans.

I also agree that the ownership of the Cardinals and Lions explains a of the current discrepancy.

by Pat (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 4:08pm

I should also note: the best year the Cardinals have had in the past thirty years? 1998. When they massively, massively overachieved, going 9-7 despite being heavily outscored by their opponents (only 6.6 pythagorean wins).

So, they've had 3 winning seasons in 30 years. And two of those were lucky (1998 and 1983 - the Cardinals were actually half-decent in 1984).

by throughthelookingglass (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 4:10pm

Some teams complain if they haven’t won their division in 10 years.

It takes much less than that for some fans to complain. Some fans even complain when their team wins :(

by Will Allen (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 4:13pm

To be more clear, in the Lions' case, it is the era of Millen having pictures of a certain automobile fortune heir in a compromising position with a farm animal that might explain some of the current discrepancy in conference strength. The Lions were never much good, but it is the Millen era which has just been astoundingly bad. Then again, I'm too lazy to look up what the Lions' record was against AFC teams in the years preceding the Millen fiasco, so maybe my impression is wrong.

by Joe (not verified) :: Mon, 01/29/2007 - 6:32pm

Andrew - The Seahawks got a bad wrap when they were in the AFC. Remember they were in the AFC West with the Raiders (up until recent problems one of the winningest franchises in the post merger NFL), the Broncos (frequently a good team, lots of SB appearances), the Chargers (sometimes a good team), and the Chiefs (also sometimes good). From the mid-70s through the mid-90s that was just a nasty division to be in, possibly as unpleasant as the NFC East during the same time frame.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Tue, 01/30/2007 - 11:15am

Joe #39:

the Raiders (up until recent problems one of the winningest franchises in the post merger NFL)

The Raiders still hold that title if you look back to 1966 (start of the Super Bowl - Raiders are 3rd in wins behind Cowboys and Dolphins 376 and 368 to 365) or 1961 (start of the 14 game schedule in the NFL - Raiders are second in wins to Cowboys 401 to 391). The Raiders are now 5th in wins since the merger.